Revisiting Bronzeville: Is Chicago’s Black Renaissance at Dawn or Dusk?
Author: Weiqi Wang
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), Division of the Social Sciences (SSD)
When I was virtually exploring the neighborhoods of Chicago, a sculpture named “Monument to the Great North Migration” grabbed my attention. Accomplished by sculptor Alison Saar, this monument is a self-evident attestation of a legendary historical event: the Great Migration, during which millions of Southern African Americans migrated to Northern America. Standing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at 26 Street, an entry point to the Bronzeville neighborhood, the statue is facing north with a determined and unyielding stare (see figure 1). His right hand is raised to greet his forthcoming new life while his left hand is carrying a suitcase, which can usually be symbolized as his American dream and fatigued journey(Reynolds, 2013).
Passing by the statue, I entered into Bronzeville, a neighborhood in the southern part of Chicago. According to Alex Bean, the name of this neighborhood was first put forward by James Gentry, a theater editor of the Chicago Bee, implying that the skin color of the African Americans was closer to bronze than black(Bean, 2016). Regarded as the ultimate destination for many southern African-American people, Bronzeville evolved into one of Chicago’s most crowded and booming districts at the beginning of 20th century, hence where the saying “city within a city” stems from. Given all these conditions, a cultural movement was instigated by the artists dwelling in the South Side of Chicago, with a wide spectrum of art forms: literature, dance, jazz and blues, theater and sociology studies. This art movement was then referred to as the ‘Chicago Black Renaissance’ by scholars to indicate the prolific artworks generated during this phase. However, both the impetus and the significance of this movement are still obscured.
A Deferral of a Dream
Owing to the severe deprivation and pervasive discrimination in the southern part of America, over half a million of African-American people decided to migrate north, especially, to Chicago(Hurt, 2000). Under the circumstance of being segregated in almost every aspect of their lives as well as unemployment, lots of African Americans were intrigued by the contents of a newspaper: The Chicago Defender(“Chicago Black Renaissance”, n.d.). In this newspaper, a mass of southern people got their first impressions of what life would be like in Chicago: qualified education, decent jobs and cozy homes. The majority of them set their departure time immediately.
However, even if those people’s lives upgraded somehow in Chicago’s South Side, they found themselves still underprivileged: the existence of covenants and discriminatory loan policies hindered them from living in an favorable environment; moreover, the most decent and well-paid jobs still shut them out(The Atlantic,2014). Consequently, a sense of dissatisfaction, disappointment, resentment and the unceasing desire of living a better life constituted the main topics and contexts of the artworks created by the black artists during the Chicago Black Renaissance.
Richard Wright, a pioneering writer in this remarkable art movement, devoted most of his effort to represent the twisted situation a black boy might consistently confront in his growth: the white racial fantasies and racism (see figure 2). His autobiographical book, Black Boy, in which the protagonist of it had already habituated himself to the distorted reality and even tried to rationalize it, is nothing but the cruelest part of this work. Wright told this story in a fairly resentful and heartbroken tone, which can be regarded as his way to vent his anger towards the unfair realities(Hurt, 2000). No matter what kind of genre or ways the artists attempted to express themselves, there was a shared context and unconsciousness of all these artworks: Black people’s aversion for their current living conditions and their loss of their unfulfilled American dreams.
Racial Pride: The Powerhouse of Internal Cohesion
Within such a context, the racial pride shared by the African-American people created an unceasing impetus for them to work and fight collaboratively against certain inequities in their lives. Reversely, their common experiences of fighting against racism will reinforce their social cohesion and even form a comradeship among them. This process can be considered the cradle of Chicago Black Renaissance. From the 1910s to 1920s, the African Americans living in the Bronzeville found their own ways to support black businesses in their neighborhood. A series of campaigns dominated by the local communities, like “Double Duty Dollar” , sprung up and started to encourage people to shop at the black owned stores. Jessie Binga, a great banker, established the first bank in Bronzeville to provide black people with financial support , all these facts combined paved the way for the later art movement.
The success of these endeavors increased black people’s racial pride and helped alleviate their sense of helplessness. Moreover, all of these deeds not only generated solid economic foundations for later development but also created role models for later movements. In the Chicago Black Renaissance, there were numerous institutions serving as the mediums of communication, such as the South Side Community Art Center(see figure 3), to promote collaborations among different artists. These institutions followed the inherent tradition to support each other and helped increase African-American people’s faith in their own culture by presenting how stunning and breathtaking their artworks can be.
Dawn or Dusk?
Splendid as it was, the Chicago Black Renaissance only lasted for around 20 years, from 1930 to around 1950s(Trice, 2012). Therefore, some people asserted that this art movement was the end of the Bronzevilles’ flourishing, like the twilight before the darkness, marking the decadency of this glorious neighborhood. Plausible as it may sound, this assertion neglects a fact: even though Bronzeville fell into decline due to the restrictive housing policies, which also appeared to impair the economic foundation of the Chicago Black Renaissance, the end of this art movement lay in the fact that people’s concentration was shifted from arts to politics. The Chicago Black Renaissance uncovered the pervasive realities among black people and by reiterating them, it sowed a seed in every African Americans’ heart: the same loss and the need to fight together against injustice. On the basis of this consensus shaped by the Renaissance, the African Americans in Chicago started to fight collaboratively for their political rights, hence where the Civil Rights stemmed from(“Civil Rights Movement”,2021). Compared to the transient bloom of the neighborhood, the African Americans’ large-scale and proactive defiance after 1950s was more qualified to be the light for their future, and owing to the fact that the Chicago Black Renaissance did pave a way for later political movements, it is safe enough for us to conclude that this art movement indicated the dawn for African-American people’s lives.
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